Notes from Nigerians

Trying in vain to write about COVID-19

In Notes by Nigerians, we are looking at how life has changed; perhaps forever.

Instructions arrive to work from home on the morning of March 19th as it begins to appear that Lagos would be the gallery of COVID-19’s highly-publicized incursion into Nigeria. By the time we got our index patient, warnings had been given, and unheeded, about the government’s handling of what was soon to be declared a pandemic. Public hysteria heightened. Pieces were written about the border being open while the president looked on from Aso Rock. It appeared that a shutdown was on the horizon, meaning only essential services would be allowed to operate, so I left Lagos city. 

Leaving is never easy. There is some form of guilt for liking – loving – the fragile stillness that enveloped the city of Lagos as I made my way out of it. Humans and city alike were presented with a golden opportunity to heal at the cost of worrying about the disruption to the certainties of their lives; but I am willing to accept the tradeoff. As I make my way out, eyes on the road, lips pursed, trying to avoid bodily contact in the distinct grind of a danfo, I am looking forward to the thrill of writing history’s first draft in the coming weeks; to write unencumbered about the world that was before a pandemic; to write about the world that lived through it; and the semblance of a world that hopes to make it through the darkest of times. 

Where I retreated to observe the federal government’s lockdown order I don’t hear the chirpy songs of birds that accessorized my morning walks, or the overhead drone of commercial airplanes, or the terrifying bustle of Lagos’ relentlessness, or the voices of strange children delirious with unexplainable ecstasy. Instead, I hear the grating sound of steel against wooden tables as mothers haggle the price of meat with butchers. I feel the discordant energy of a market that is fighting to make as many sales as possible before its 2 p.m. close down time. I feel everything except the urge to write. And for me, a writer, that has been a terrifying thing to feel. 

For as long as I can remember, I have always hinged my identity to words. Reveling in my ability to consume of copious amounts of literature in whatever forms they existed, and later, write my own thoughts on whatever floated into my consciousness. Before the lockdown, I was – still am – a staff writer at an online culture magazine. Words were my currency, the only way I knew to navigate this labyrinth that is life. 

If life before a pandemic was a labyrinth, life in the middle of COVID-19 is a series of dark, claustrophobic passageways that leave me feeling limited and panicked. For writers – for me – the days flow into each other as the ennui and routine creep in; routine, I have now learned, is the enemy of the creativity. I want to write but the things I want to write are stuck in my chest as what I am quickly recognizing as panic refuses to allow me interpret my thoughts from mind to Word document. 

The spectacle of a writer without words is what I have had to confront in the weeks that have passed, and it is a shameful thing for me to feel. The physical feeling of being shuttered is currently inescapable, but for me, the dread of being wordless, driftless has been a more potent burden to bear. On Twitter, the chatter says don’t listen to the news or you fall into the information loop. Yet my seamless unending days give way to hours spent on the couch watching live updates on CNN, Channels, and BBC. 

As social distancing, quarantine, contact-tracing, and the likes enter the Nigerian lexicon, and are being bandied around on the television, I am writing unfinished drafts about the relative normalcy of life outside Lagos. Like the piece I started on the market woman who looked at me one day in the market and said, ‘Corona is better than hunger.’ No matter how much – and well – I write, I think, I cannot do her feelings justice. The true story of COVID-19 in Nigeria is the one you might never hear: the robberies occurring in the middle of the pandemic that ended up dividing a family or the military shooting that forever altered the life of an expectant mother. 

Bravery is needed to write what needs to be told, what is in front of me, but it is bravery that COVID-19 is draining from the general public with each passing day, myself included. Writing assumes the role of protest, to me at least, as the world attempts to cave in on us because it insists on documentation and imagination, both of which insist on a prodding of our present circumsatnce before we confront a possible future. One of my favourite pastimes now is to read thoughts and perspectives about the pandemic and what it means for different communities around the world. One of the best things I’ve read comes from the Indian author, Arundhati Roy in the Financial Times where she wrote: “Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.”

I now accept that my mind is racing and that we won’t be normal, at least, not anytime soon. But we have to press on. One of those unending nights in the middle of the lockdown I change my Twitter bio to “professional malcontent,” I don’t know why, maybe it is because I will never stop demanding that I write something as we try to get our world, if not normal, recognisable to us again. That night, I also started to write again. 

Wale Oloworekende is a writer interested in the intersection of popular culture, travel, and youth lifestyle.

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